Singapore: Whose 'Norway' Is It?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Photo by Peter Nguyen on Unsplash
Hint: The Socialists Can Have It

Although "How Capitalist Is Singapore Really?" is a blog post put out by a socialist think tank, it is worth reading since one occasionally hears the island country touted as an example of comparative "economic freedom" (as if freedom of expression and freedom of action are not parts of a whole):
The Singaporean state owns 90 percent of the country's land. Remarkably, this level of ownership was not present from the beginning. In 1949, the state owned just 31 percent of the country's land. It got up to 90 percent land ownership through decades of forced sales, or what people in the US call eminent domain.

The Singaporean state does not merely own the land. They directly develop it, especially for residential purposes. Over 80 percent of Singapore's population lives in housing constructed by the country's public housing agency HDB. The Singaporean government claims that around 90 percent of people living in HDB units "own" their home. But the way it really works is that, when a new HDB unit is built, the government sells a transferable 99-year lease for it. The value of that lease slowly declines as it approaches the 99-year mark, after which point the lease expires and possession of the HDB unit reverts back to the state. Thus, Singapore is a land where almost everyone is a long-term public housing tenant. [bold added, links omitted]
That Singapore is freer and more prosperous than, say, Venezuela or Soviet Russia, is obvious, but such comparisons don't say much. (And what they do say will be heavily dependent on context and ripe for misinterpretation.) Just look at how many socialists admire Scandinavia, and get away with it because those countries are comparatively prosperous.) Nor does it surprise me much to hear the above, despite the country's relative prosperity among today's bestiary of tyrannies. The government has broad powers to interfere with the right to free speech, for example. And its history indicates that it can probably thank an authoritarian ruler who admired British law and order for whatever resemblance to a free society it has now, as Thomas Sowell once pointed out:
In short, Lee Kuan Yew was pragmatic, rather than ideological. Many observers saw a contradiction between Singapore's free markets and its lack of democracy. But its long-serving prime minister did not deem its people ready for democracy. Instead, he offered a decent government with much less corruption than in other countries in that region of the world.

His example was especially striking in view of many in the West who seem to think that democracy is something that can be exported to countries whose history and traditions are wholly different from those of Western nations that evolved democratic institutions over the centuries. [bold omitted]
It behooves the proponent of free markets to read the following, again from this socialist outlet:
Call me old-fashioned, but I don't generally associate state ownership of the means of production with capitalism. One way to see whether libertarians or conservatives actually think Singapore's system is uber-capitalistic is to imagine how they would respond to someone who ran a campaign in the US aimed at bringing the country up to the Singaporean ideal.

In this campaign, the candidate would say that the country should expropriate nearly all of the land in the country, build virtually all of the housing in the country, move almost everyone into public housing leaseholds, become the largest shareholder of more than a third of the country's publicly-traded companies...
No. We do not need this, and the blogger is correct to say that Singapore is "more than just a funny gotcha to use against right-wingers," but not in the  way he thinks. Those of us who value having the freedom to express our thoughts and act on them should be very clear about what we speak of when we say we support capitalism. I highly recommend Ayn Rand's definition:
Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.
I also recommend taking the time to become familiar with and understand her defense of same, but this requires more effort than finding "gotchas" or parroting "what market socialists have been saying for a hundred years" (while ignoring what the socialists have been achieving during that same time frame).

-- CAV

P.S. The term "market socialism" is new to me, but it immediately brings two things to my mind. The first is a quote by Abraham Lincoln about patents:
The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.
The second is a story about a social experiment implementing, "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" in a factory in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, from which I'll quote in part:
"It didn't take us long to see how it all worked out. Any man who tried to play straight, had to refuse himself everything. He lost his taste for any pleasure, he hated to smoke a nickel's worth of tobacco or chew a stick of gum, worrying whether somebody had more need for that nickel. He felt ashamed of every mouthful of food he swallowed, wondering whose weary night of overtime had paid for it, knowing that his food was not his by right, miserably wishing to be cheated rather than to cheat, to be a sucker, but not a blood-sucker. He wouldn't marry, he wouldn't help his folks back home, he wouldn't put an extra burden on 'the family.' Besides, if he still had some sort of sense of responsibility, he couldn't marry or bring children into the world, when he could plan nothing, promise nothing, count on nothing. But the shiftless and the irresponsible had a field day of it. They bred babies, they got girls into trouble, they dragged in every worthless relative they had from all over the country, every unmarried pregnant sister, for an extra 'disability allowance,' they got more sicknesses than any doctor could disprove, they ruined their clothing, their furniture, their homes -- what the hell, 'the family' was paying for it! They found more ways of getting in 'need' than the rest of us could ever imagine -- they developed a special skill for it, which was the only ability they showed. (613)
Both of these quotes speak to the practical results of the crime of stealing profit from the inventive, which should make anyone question "what market socialists have been saying for a century." Call me a "Randroid" all you want, but the whole idea of a market economy that is supposed to achieve prosperity without permitting ownership (at all? past a certain point?) by individuals is inhuman.

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